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Another cycle gone

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Like so many before, this World Cup-qualification campaign ended in bitter disappointment; once again, Canada couldn’t survive a tough road schedule and CONCACAF gamesmanship…

Back in 2009, the members of the only Canadian men’s national team to ever qualify for a World Cup were honoured by our national Soccer Hall of Fame.

The members of the team were honoured in Toronto, and Bob Lenarduzzi — the current president of the Vancouver Whitecaps, former national-team player and coach — said that the reunion was bittersweet. He thought it was wonderful to have the team back together again, but it was also a stark reminder that the side didn’t really leave behind a legacy.

Lenarduzzi said that, back in 1986, the players thought they had made a breakthrough — that Canada’s appearance in the World Cup should have led to qualification in 1990, then 1994 — and so on. The fact that the 1986 alumni get progressively more grey as national team after national team fails to qualify for the World Cup, well, it hurts.

After then-coach Benito Floro failed to steer the current iteration of our men’s national team to CONCACAF’s Hex, the final stage of regional World Cup qualifying, the earliest Canada can make a World Cup appearance is 2022. The 2018 dream, like every dream from 1990 on, is dead. Floro paid for the failure with his job.

Canadian midfield veteran Nik Ledgerwood scored and was named TSN’s man of the match for Canada’s final Group A qualifier, which saw the home side beat El Salvador 3-1 at BC Place. But, despite the win, that September night was just another bitter elimination day to add to the Canadian soccer history book. Canada went into the game knowing that it had to beat El Salvador and hope for Mexico — who was unbeaten and un-tied through its five first group-stage matches — to thump Honduras at Azteca Stadium. The combination of the two scores had to erase a five-goal advantage Honduras had over Canada.

In the end, no matter what Canada did, it would have been moot. Honduras got a 0-0 draw in Mexico — in a game played at a pace that would be generous to call “slow.” Mexico created only one golden scoring chance all game long, and Hirving Lozano managed to miss a wide-open goal by blasting the ball well over the bar.

Nik Ledgerwood

“It’s sad that Canadian soccer can’t move forward like I think it should and, obviously, it’s going to take another cycle before we get another chance of doing it,” said Ledgerwood. “We had the mentality going in that we needed to win, we needed to score goals and we thought, maybe, at the end of the day, that’d we’d get a little help from Mexico. But that wasn’t the case. We could have won that game 5-0 or 6-0 and we wouldn’t have gone through. But I think that game showed what we can create in Canada; the atmosphere, the crowd, the players, the attacking kind of mentality we had going into that game.

“It was hard to swallow after a game like that. You go out and play very well but you don’t move forward to the Hex — and that’s what everybody’s hearts were set on. Not only for the players, but I think everybody started to feel like we can push Canadian soccer in the right direction. It would have been a huge step to do that. And, so I think everyone had that on their shoulders when we walked back into the locker room. It was definitely a tough day.”

Floro, like Canadians Stephen Hart and Dale Mitchell who came before, didn’t get it done. And, that’s why the Spaniard’s contract wasn’t renewed.

But, the quality of the team has improved. Over the past three years, Floro was able to bring in players such as Junior Hoilett and Scott Arfield into the fold. Yes, there were, questionable in-game decisions, such as subbing off two goal-scorers for defenders when Canada needed goals against El Salvador. Yes, there were hotly debated roster decisions, such as his decision to claim that Toronto FC midfielder Will Johnson was not fit enough to play for the national team for its final two group-stage matches, even though WJ had returned to action for his MLS club.

So, with that anger being so fresh, so new, it’s easy to emphasize the bad and ignore the good.

And Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani conceded that, under Floro, the men’s national team’s quality had improved. The players were now treated as if they were in a “five-star hotel.”

“I think a lot of players see two sides to it,” said Ledgerwood. “He’s definitely put in three years of hard work and built a foundation with the guys. I think the guys, internally, see great strides going forward with the national team and I think that’s a big thing. All of us got on the same page and bought into the philosophy that he wanted to bring to Canadian soccer. On the other side of it, do you wreck that foundation that he’s built and bring in somebody else and give them the chance to build something up?

“I enjoyed having him as a head coach, I learned a lot from him. He gave me the trust as a player to be there. So, I’ll never take that away from him.

“He spent hours with us on tactics on a lot of stuff that maybe we didn’t see the way he saw it. Different views of the games, educating a lot of younger players about the game, and not just on the field; a lot of video stuff, a lot of analysis stuff, that I think is going to help us in the long run.”

Cyle Larin in action for Canada in 2015’s 0-0 draw at El Salvador in World Cup qualifying.

Floro himself had always portrayed himself as a cool customer; he didn’t pump his fists when the team scored. He didn’t throw things when Canada gave up a goal. Before the final two games of the group stage — a 2-1 loss in the sweltering heat of San Pedro Sula and the 3-1 win over El Salvador — he was asked if he feared for his future.

“A leader must always remain calm, to transmit to the players the same calm feeling,” Floro said. “I never think about future, I think about the present.”

Colin Miller, who coached the Canadian national team on an interim basis before Floro took over, said he saw a lot of positives over the last three years with the Spaniard at the helm. Miller was cautious in answering questions about Floro, simply because he knows that, as a former Canadian national team player and coach, any statement he makes is loaded.

But, he stressed that he saw a lot of good.

“I think we have made strides forward,” said Miller. “I think the squad of players we have now and the young ones that are coming through, the academies throughout Canada, the national youth teams that [teenage FC Edmonton midfielder] Shamit Shome is now a part of, there’s some quality in these young lads. What we have to do now, if we’re going to continue to play as well as we did [against El Salvador], we have to look for those attributes away from home as well. As much as I hate it that we’re out, I saw enough in that group… the hunger, the passion, the crowd, it’s a positive way to finish up an unsuccessful series of games for us.”

Reform needed

We also have to look at the luck of the draw. It ended up being a huge advantage for Honduras to get the big dog in the group, Mexico, on the last day of group-stage play. Having that game in Mexico after El Tri was already qualified was a huge advantage. And, certainly, we will continue to ask questions about why Mexico came out so flat for a game against Honduras.

This story originally appeared in PLASTIC PITCH #10.

Ledgerwood had a wry smile when asked about the Honduras-Mexico match; he noted that both coaches — Honduras’s Jorge Luis Pinto and Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio — are both Colombians.

“It doesn’t surprise you at the end of the day, let’s just say that. And you hear about the bribes that happen down in El Salvador and CONCACAF’s got to sort out quite a bit of stuff.”

Ledgerwood was referring to the fact that, before the game against Canada, El Salvador’s football association claimed its players had been approached by an agent of a Honduras businessman who wanted to give them financial incentives to play well against Canada.

Ledgerwood also noted that in the penultimate game of the group stage, a 2-1 loss at Honduras in sweltering 35C midday heat — before the humidity was factored in — the teams were promised water breaks. But, Canada was up 1-0 on Manjrekar James’s headed goal when the time came for the first-half water break — and the teams played on.

So, the question, does Canada push for CONCACAF to be more vigilant in policing its member nations — or do we say to hell with it, and start the gamesmanship ourselves? Do we do more to make the visiting teams uncomfortable when they come to Canada?

Ledgerwood laughed at the thought of it.

“Canadians aren’t like that.”

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